NRL clubs will not be granted dispensation to delay registering 29 players for the coming season on March 1 as they prepare for a late transfer frenzy after the resolution of a raft of off-field issues in coming days.
After announcing 24 members of their 30-man squads on November 1, clubs have had until this Friday to register the contracts of a further five players and are permitted to keep one spot open until June 30 but some believe the transfer market is set to heat up and want to wait.
The key developments expected to trigger last minute signing action include:
- Anticipated changes to the NRL’s policy towards players facing serious police charges; and,
- Expectations that Cronulla will be forced to operate on a reduced salary cap next season.
If Thursday’s ARL Commission annual general meeting decides to stand down players, such as St George Illawarra lock Jack de Belin and Manly centre Dylan Walker, until the outcome of their court cases are determined those clubs are likely to receive salary cap relief to help them sign replacements.
A decision on the NRL’s salary cap investigations into the Sharks and Tigers is also set to be made within days, with the possibility that one or both clubs will need to shed players before the start of the season.
Star backs Shaun Johnson and Josh Dugan have been assured by Cronulla management that they won’t be squeezed out but the Sharks could be forced to release some mid-range forward talent amid speculation they could receive a penalty of up to $500,000.
Rival clubs are watching the developments with interest and some are known to have their eyes on certain players if the Sharks or Tigers are forced to operate on a reduced salary cap in 2019.
However, clubs are hampered in their ability to recruit players who may become available as they have to register the contracts of 29 members of their top 30 squads for the season.
For some clubs, this means making decisions now on whether to promote development players into their 29-man list on upgraded deals or sign players who have been on trial contracts.
There have been complaints that they would then need to restructure their rosters to accommodate any further signings, pushing more players onto the market in the process.
However, any requests for dispensation to delay registering 29 players until after the sanctions against the Sharks and Tigers have been announced are set to be rejected by NRL salary cap auditor Richard Gardham.
It is understood clubs who ask for dispensation will be told they can still leave one position in their 30-man roster available for another signing as they do not have to fill all spots until June 30.
The decision could leave the Dragons and Sea Eagles in the box seat to sign replacements for de Belin and Walker if the pair are stood down after the ARL's AGM as it is believed both clubs could have up to $400,000 available to spend.
The compensation is about two-thirds of the value of de Belin and Walker’s contracts, as players have already been paid for the first four months of their annual salary.
If de Belin or Walker are stood down by the NRL, they would remain on full pay until their contracts expire or the outcome of their court hearings are determined.
Former Souths forward Zane Musgrove, who has been signed by the Wests Tigers, could also be stood down if the NRL changes its policy as he is in the midst of a trial following allegations of assault against a woman at a Sydney nightspot in November. He will next appear in Waverley Local Court in March.
Walker’s domestic violence case has been adjourned until May 10, while de Belin is not due to appear in court again until April 17 after a brief appearance earlier this month over aggravated sexual assault charges.
All three have pleaded not guilty and it was reported on Wednesday that de Belin had refused an offer to stand himself down, meaning his immediate fate will be left to the NRL.
Debate about whether the ARLC should change the NRL’s policy of not standing players down while they are contesting serious criminal charges has polarised the game but there is expected to be enough support at Thursday’s AGM to do so.
ARLC chairman Peter Beattie outlined the proposed new policy, which he said would make no judgement on a player's guilt or innocence.
For less serious charges or other offences, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg would retain the power to determine whether any penalties should be imposed against players.
“Above a certain line, based on the severity of the offence and we have to determine that yet, but say for example an offence that brings a penalty of 10 years, then above that if you’re charged with that then it’s an automatic stand down," Beattie told Channel Nine.
"No fault, no presumption of guilt. A presumption of innocence. Below that, then Todd still has the discretion. But we’re still to finalise that.”
De Belin has not been named for St George Illawarra’s Charity Shield clash against South Sydney in Mudgee on Saturday night for “player welfare” reasons and the Dragons believe it is in his best interests to be allowed to continue playing.